Where Film, Music, and Writing Meet: An Interview with Craig Oliver

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Craig Oliver

Craig Oliver owns and operates Volar Records, an independent record label, out of his apartment in Golden Hill, San Diego. The label has released bands such as the Fresh & Onlys, Beaters, and many more. However, his interests reach beyond music. A graduate from the San Diego State University film program, he is an avid film fan and writes his own movies too. Writing, music, and film are not separate for Craig. He was kind of enough to indulge me in some insights about working on the independent side of music, as well as his own interests and inspirations beyond that.

Your motto on the Volar Records website is “community not competition”, what does it mean to you to be part of a community that promotes the arts?

The most fun part of this endeavor is staying connected with bands and artists and helping them get their work out into the world. Of course there’s the financial aspect—it can be incredibly hard to sell records, and making your money back, let alone profiting, is far from a given. I haven’t been very good at treating the label like a business and am still learning how to do so; it has more to do with treating it all like a museum or a party, curating a bunch of artists and giving them wall space for their bands to be seen and hopefully loved or at least admired, or calling in yet another band to get on stage while everyone revels. There might be a collective “us vs. them” mentality, but it’s still a matter of a bunch of like-minded artists, in this case musicians, coming together and bonding and sharing themselves and getting to know each other through their respective music. More often than not, I’ve seen bands try to go up against each other for whatever grasp of “fame” they can get—much of the corporate music world is completely guilty of this—and it’s total horseshit. Even here in town, there isn’t much of a scene, just a scattered few pockets of bands that don’t typically play together and vie for the opening slots in front of bigger touring acts. The number of friends I’ve made and have kept in touch with over the years, be they in bands who’ve come through town or while I was on the road with one of my old bands, means the most to me in all that experience. To see some friends do well in their bands at some point is great, as it can allow them more freedom to focus on their creative work, but there is no such thing as “the best” in art.

What do you look for in bands that you’re hoping to sign?

As the sole person behind this here “label,” I fortunately don’t have to deal with any sort of corporate interests. The only real rule is that I really like a band, and thus many of the releases are left-of-center takes on punk, post-punk, garage-punk, psych rock, dystopian synth, power-pop, and whatever other moniker might fit with dirty guitar and/or synth driven music. If I really like a record and it has the potential to do well with an audience, then all the better. But it’s a juggling act of wanting to work with artists and bands who aren’t too straightforward, dumb boring garage rock or something (yet another Black Lips or Thee Oh Sees rip-off), but still hoping that what’s being created might be able to connect with people on some level.

What kind of expectations do you have of the bands you take on?

My main hope is that they actively play out and maybe tour and promote their respective records. The “indie” music world, especially now, is intensely oversaturated, and the only way to get anyone’s attention is to put yourself directly in front of them. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many people actively going out of their way to find something new, since everyone’s so overstimulated anyway. But as a band, if you want anyone to care about who you are and what you do, you have to remind people that you exist.

Do lyrics have any influence on the bands you choose to sign?

Only in respect to whatever attitude of a band is apparent in what they sing about, if I can even make out the lyrics (because half the time I can’t). I wouldn’t want to deal with anything demeaning or degrading. Lyrically, I think most of the records on Volar work in a manner either heartfelt or abstract or satirical or caustic or vulnerable, but never hurtful.

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You were raised in a military family, how did your exposure to different cultures and languages influence your artistic style, if at all?

Living in Japan for almost six years, the foremost culture reveling in the absurd, and 18 years across the border from Mexico, has definitely played a part in understanding that society at large is multi-faceted. Yet anxieties, hopes, fears, dreams, all that stuff, is universal. All artistic forms can be approached differently and expanded upon; all forms of sound and visuals can mutate, leading to a progression of said forms. When it comes down to it, most people write songs about very similar things—unrequited love, youthful angst, political oppression, being true to yourself, or just plain partying. Of course, I found out recently that Japanese metal-pop band Babymetal’s big hit is about wanting chocolate, so, again, there’s also room for new avenues of thought. It’s still painful to not have chocolate if you really want it!

You wanted to do a music festival with a literary element, what drew you to this combination?

At one point in time, OFF!, a punk-rock supergroup with Keith Morris (Circle Jerks/Black Flag), hadn’t played San Diego yet, and it was around that time that I was more privy to some newer, larger venue spaces in town. My dream was to finally get them down, and perhaps get Henry Rollins down for some reading, to create a sort of festival that was more all-encompassing than just a bunch of bands on a stage. Ultimately none of this ever happened, but it’s still my hope that somebody I throw a little festival that might be a little more vaudevillian, with music and literature and comedy and science and whatever else all represented.

As someone from a film background, what drew you to record production?

For me, music and film are two sides of the same coin, music influencing my film writing and vice versa. They’re the two biggest modes of expression in my life, and as a musician and wannabe filmmaker myself, the act of trying to help a musical artist get his or his vision stamped into wax and out into the world is of great import. All this said, I don’t actually “produce.” I don’t know if there’s an actual label for what I do, which is basically getting music pressed on vinyl and promoted online and out into the world.

Tell me more about how music influences your own writing?

For the handful of scripts that I hope to film someday, they all have a working soundtrack that helps me keep everything pieced together. Certain scenes are buoyed along by specific tracks, and typically a story that I have more fleshed out takes on a certain tone as a number of songs find their way into the future film. My favorite music is usually cinematic to some degree. Even a number of goofy pop songs get stuck in my head and play out a scene: the characters in the stories underscored by music the way some folks used to walk around with boom boxes on their shoulders, music as a representation perhaps of what a person is feeling. In terms of writing to direct, I’ll typically return to a particular song to try and figure out a scene and keep letting it unfold. Some feature ideas I put away years ago started coming back once a certain song or two wormed its way into the story and started helping me flesh it out.

And finally, since we are ultimately a lit journal here at The B-side, I have to ask you: What are you reading these days?

I just finished Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt, the story of a down-and-out bartender in a seedy part of Los Angeles, which spoke to me because of my regular job at a bar, and which I recommend to any who’s done the same, or anyone else looking for a searing character study of the downfall of modern people given into vices.

Apart from that, it’s a lot of film and music criticism new and old (Borges collected newspaper film reviews are pretty great, even though I don’t know any of the movies he writes about). I’ve also been catching up on comics and graphic novels lately, anything by Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Brian K. Vaughn, and Charles Burns. I just finished This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki, pretty great. I’ve been re-reading Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge, her collection of shorts stories, and I’ve also been sifting through a number of books about 70s car culture and the oil crisis for a script I’m trying to finish.

For more from Craig and Volar, check out volarrecords.com

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